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Charting How the Grey Lady Learned to Play With Video Games

Video games have come a long way since Space Invaders, and so has the way they are framed in the national conversation.
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Mirrored display and cardboard background of a Midway Space Invaders Deluxe arcade cabinet. (PHOTO: ROOM88/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Mirrored display and cardboard background of a Midway Space Invaders Deluxe arcade cabinet. (PHOTO: ROOM88/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Over the summer critics (and industry-related readers) at The New York Times are reviewing their “first crushes” in culture—the Patti Page song that riveted your young attention, The Simpsons gag that led you to be a screenwriter. Included among these cultural touchstones are inspirational video games that launched future careers. There was no controversy surrounding the inclusion, and why would there be? If only commercially (versus artistically) video games have trumped music, books, magazines, and, by some measures, moviemaking in mass media spending.

But that acceptance is relatively new, as demonstrated by a new paper looking at how the Times (as a proxy for the sober-side of the U.S. narrative) has treated video games.

Brian McKernan, a doctoral candidate in sociology at University at Albany, State University of New York, paged through the Grey Lady’s coverage between 1980 and 2010 and cataloged the dominant frame as it evolved from threat to our youth, to different kind of threat to our youth, to a possible benefit to our youth, to an accepted member of the media community.

Whether the specific concern centers on how video games replace more desirable activities, promote violent tendencies, or encourage sedentary lifestyles, The New York Times predominantly describes video games as a social hazard. The commonality these depictions share reflects entertainment media’s semipolluted position in civil society. Indeed, in the later two decades, The New York Times connects video games to other forms of entertainment the newspaper finds threatening, including television, film, popular music, and the Internet. Consequently, in understanding video games, the newspaper utilizes an enduring narrative that views entertainment as socially dangerous.

While the study period was decided by the existence of LexisNexis archives, the timeframe is apt. Space Invaders—the first “killer app” of video gaming—came out in 1979 (Pong debuted in 1972, but c’mon—Pong!). Nintendo’s first console, the Famicon, came out in 1983, ushering in the age of Super Mario Brothers and of game consoles that were themselves newsworthy.

McKernan argues that his examination of the mass media meme for video games is relatively unique, except for a big hat tip he gives to the University of Southern California's video-game éminence not-so-griseDmitri Williams and his "The Video Game Lightning Rod" about the “vilification and partial redemption” of games between 1970 and 2000. Williams’ 2003 paper unintentionally sheds light on another media sea change in the U.S.–instead of the Times as a national mirror, he looked at the newsweeklies Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, only one of which is still around.

The arc that Williams was describing continued in McKernan’s telling. “By the end of the 1990s,” he writes, “video games are no longer a looming threat but simply one more type of children’s entertainment that parents must monitor.”

The kernel of redemption sprouts in that quote: “children’s entertainment.” In the 2000s, McKernan notes, as players matured into adults and the industry started throwing off obscene amounts of money, games moved from children’s entertainment to adult business (granted, market penetration is still next to universal for teens). When games were kids’ stuff, the Times could argue, apparently with a straight face, that “by replacing more valuable endeavors such as pursuing scientific knowledge or reading challenging literature, video games jeopardize America’s future generations.” Now that a grown-up future generation or two plays games with gusto, it’s apparently okay that cancer remains uncured and Moby-Dick lies unread on the coffee table.

Still, McKernan tells us, it’s been a long, fraught trip:

[D]uring the 1980s, The New York Times predominantly expresses concern over how video games’ replacement of worthwhile activities will result in an intellectually inept generation of Americans. The predominant narrative shifts in the 1990s to focusing on how video games promote violent behavior. Although violent behavior remains the newspaper’s primary focus through the first decade of the 2000s, during this period a second narrative addressing video games’ adverse health effects rises in prominence, particularly from the mid-2000s onward.

Not every Times article offered drama; earnings reports and sales figures are about video games’ marketing, but not their morality, while the reviews of new games accept them as aesthetic creatures, not subject to anthropology. (His Times archive search identified 1,735 articles with “video game” or “computer game” for the '80s, 3,288 in the '90s, and 6,994 in the '00s.) All told, McKernan wrote, about 10 percent of his 2,000-story sample offered the moral evaluation he was tracking. In the 1980s, he found, 43 percent of these evaluative articles characterized games as “a shallow form of cultural expression,” 16 percent feared they promoted violence, and 30 percent discussed their health deficits. On the other thumb, 16 percent of stories in the 1980s discussed games’ social benefits.

In the 1990s and 2000s, violence replaced stupidity as video boogeyman No. 1. Thirty percent of stories in the 1990s addressed dumbing down, compared to 22 percent on the 2000s. But violence concerns rose to 37 and 25 percent respectively in those periods, while health issues hovered at 23 and 28 percent. When the Wii came out in 2006, it offered a new health narrative about activity and not obesity. Still, reporting on social benefits remains a minority story—12 percent of articles in the ’90s, and 17 percent in the ’00s.

While the Times does play an outsize role in setting a so-called national agenda, events themselves do generate discussion. As games became more explicitly violent, in 1993 Congress investigated the trend and in turn industry created an independent organization to rate games.

But the real sea change in Times coverage occurred with a different kind of evaluative article, the review, which started appearing in the late 1990s and in the paper’s Arts section. “This portrayal carries a broader social significance,” McKernan notes, “as it shifts video games from entertainment’s semi-polluted position to the more sacred position of art in civil society.”

Here’s the take of Chris Suellentrop, who reviews video games for the Times, in his “first crush” essay from earlier this month:

[V]ideo games are also the stage for a great debate over whether they are a healthy course in an intelligent person’s cultural meal. Fights like this don’t come along often. ...[T]he question is no longer whether the people who make video games can use this new medium to create lasting works that convey some part of the broad range of what it feels like to be human. The more urgent question, the one that will change the world no matter how it is answered, is whether they will.